Last December, Devon at Hearth Music published a feature on No Depression called Kentucky Rising: Three Artists Remake Their Roots, which focused on three Kentucky-based artists: Ben Sollee, Daniel Martin Moore, and Matt Bauer (who now resides in Brooklyn). Already being a fan of DMM and Mr. Sollee, I figured that the third artist, who I was not familiar with at the time, was someone I should at least check out.
Needless to say, after listening to a few tunes by Mr. Bauer online, I immediately knew that I NEEDED to get my hands on his albums. So I reached out to Devon at Hearth Music for more info, and not only did he recommend his favorite album in the artist's discography for me to start with, he passed me Mr. Bauer's contact info (they are good friends).
As I began listening to and absorbing Matt Bauer's recorded work, especially his latest album, The Jessimine County Book Of The Living (Crossbill Records), I quickly realized I wanted to learn more about the songwriter behind these records. Lucky for me, he was up for it.
When and how did you begin learning and playing music?
Matt Bauer: I took piano lessons for a couple years when I was little. But, like a lot of kids, I hated it. I was always stressed out that I hadn't practiced enough for the lesson and eventually complained enough that my parents let me quit. In high school I took drum lessons and started playing in a band. From there, I started learning some chords on the guitar from our guitar player and started writing songs.
What were some of your early influences that inspired you to pursue music seriously?
Matt: When I was little I always felt really connected to music and really excited about it. Just top 40 music on the radio and on MTV. I started playing in bands early in high school and we were really into R.E.M., The Smiths, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Fugazi, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, and late eighties college radio. Also David Bowie's early records, especially Hunky Dory, The Man Who Sold the World, Heroes, and Low. I think those opened my eyes a lot to what a song could be and how arrangements and instrumentation can really shape a song or create a mood or a world.
For a really long time leading up to when I started playing banjo, I just binged on everything from alt country to field recordings. Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Steve Earle, The Stanley Brothers, The Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe, Hazel Dickens, Bob Wills, all sorts of Folkways recordings. One that I especially loved was a two disc set called Mountain Music of Kentucky. I really love Texas Gladden, Tammy Wynette, and lots and lots of Patsy Cline, early George Jones, you name it.
When I finally decided to pursue music more seriously I was working as a producer and editor at a place in San Francisco that made radio shows and documentaries. We did a lot of work about blues musicians. There were so many musicians we interviewed who weren't that well known, but they were working and making a living, sometimes just barely. Anyway, I remember thinking I had never been able to do much more than just get by as far as money goes, so if i was going to work at something and barely get by, I might as well try to do like these guys and barely get by doing something I really care about.
You grew up in Kentucky. How growing up their influence your musical trajectory?
Matt: I think there are two things, music from there, and just the place itself.
I love bluegrass and mountain music, and Bill Monroe is just one of my all time heroes. As an arranger, writer, singer, band leader, instrumentalist, he's just a giant. There's one recording that I have listened to about a bazillion times: Off The Record Vol. 1: Live Recordings 1956-1963. That was a huge inspiration for me as far as taking up the banjo (even though he plays the mandolin) and getting deeper into playing music. And any number of other Kentucky artists like Jeanie Ritchie, Roscoe Holcomb, J.D. Crowe, Alameda Riddle.
I would also include my friend Leo Blair, who was my dad's friend when I was growing up. He is a really great fiddle, banjo, and guitar player. He was one of the first people I saw play music in person, and he was definitely the first I saw play the banjo, and the earliest example I had of an actual woking musician. I think that really planted the seed for me as far as thinking about playing music and eventually taking up the banjo.
But as much as the music from Kentucky, and maybe more so, I think a lot of my music is shaped by the feeling of the places that I grew up. It's something I have trouble describing, and that I don't completely understand myself. but I keep coming back to some of the same places as settings for songs. A dry lake bed with a forest in it behind my parent's house, the creek behind my childhood home, the places where the suburbs push out in to the farms and the woods. For me it's kind of familiar and mysterious at the same time.
When and how did you begin writing your own music?
Matt: The first thing I wrote actually goes back to those piano lessons when I was little! I wrote a little instrumental called "Raindrops." I played it for my piano teacher and she wrote out the sheet music for me. That was the weird thing: I really didn't like practicing or going to my piano lessons, but I liked to make things up.
I first started writing songs, though, in high school. I spent hours just making things with a cassette four-track.
Who were some of your biggest influences then/ and who are some of your biggest influences now and why?
Matt: Back in high school I think I just had a crazy jumble of ideas running from Irish flute music, to post-punk, to The Waterboys, to the Dead Milkmen, which is great. and hilarious. Later on, I think I basically wished I was Steve Earle or Bill Monroe for a long time. Turns out I am neither of them.
Now I think I'm less influenced by specific musicians, or even by musicians at all. It's more, say, seeing a movie, or part of a video, or something that it is really unexpected, or moving in some way that makes me see some new possibility. I guess in the past, maybe I wanted to write the perfect bluegrass song. Now I want to completely surprise myself or freak myself out with something I haven't heard before.
I think I'm influenced by friends a lot too. Mariee Sioux is pretty inspirational to me both as a writer and performer. She's really just all in and i think that the best.
Can you discuss your writing processes, both musical and lyrically?
Matt: Usually a banjo or guitar part comes along at the same time as a melody, with maybe a fragment of some words or the beginning of an idea for the words. The music comes pretty quickly and easily, usually. The words, well, they usually don't. Lately I'm more able to find the words once I have arranged most of the music. I guess it sets the stage for me to get lost in the music and find the words.
How are these different and/ or unique from each other? Where do these intersect and or feed each other while you're working?
Matt: For me, writing the music: finding a melody, making up something on the banjo, writing a string arrangement, those come really naturally and intuitively. But finding the right words is more of an excavation. getting lost. Pulling things out of memory. "Blacklight Horses", from the new record, is a song that I had been trying to write for years. Not that melody or those words, but the ideas in the song I had been trying to get at with different words and music for a long time and finally found them.
Let's move into your previous discography. Can you briefly describe your recordings?
Matt: On Nandina (2004), I played and sang everything myself, on not so much because i wanted to, but because at the time I didn't know any other musicians. I was living in San Francisco and hadn't been playing music in public for a long time, and just didn't know anyone. I recorded most of it in the closet in my bedroom, which had some pipes running through it from the upstairs neighbors' bathroom. So any time they washed their hands or flushed the toilet up there, it ruined a take for me!
Wasps and White Roses (2006) is a really short record, but one that I like a lot. It was the first time I asked Mariee to sing on a record, and I'm so happy I did. Because at this point, I write and record with her in mind for the harmony parts and it's hard for me to conceive of making a record without her voice. This was also the first time I recorded with Jolie, and part of how we got to know each other. So if Nandina was the album of having no friends, Wasps and White Roses was the beginning of some great friendships.
The Island Moved in the Storm (2008) took me forever to make. I actually started recording it before I started recording Wasps, and somewhere in the middle of making it, I moved from San Francisco to New York, and moved three times in New York itself while making it. It's similar to the newest record in that it's sort of half New York friends and half West Coast friends singing and playing on it.
Can you describe how you got started on The Jessimine County Book Of The Living?
Matt: This record was a little different. In the past it's been more like you were saying, a "song-by-song" process. For this record, more than any other, I had a set of songs that I thought went together and an idea of the instrumentation and the sound of the album in mind. I wanted it to be more orchestral, and I was especially thinking of my friend Alisa Rose's string quartet playing throughout the record.
In the past I've often started recording basic tracks for the songs and then made up arrangements while recording. But this time I arranged all the songs together over a couple of months in a sheet notation program. There was still a lot of improvising and revising while recording, and a lot of collaboration, especially with all the people singing harmony. But on the whole, the album was much more arranged going into recording than usual for me.
Can you discuss the title?
Well, even thought the album cover makes people think it's a black metal album, part of the idea of the title is that the songs are supposed to be about the abundance of life. My last album was all loosely centered around the story of an unsolved murder that took place near where I grew up. this time, I wanted to write something more about the living, especially all the variety and seeming unstoppableness, if i can make up a word, of the country side and the woods where I grew up. The songs mostly take place in Fayette, Rowan, and Jessamine County, Kentucky, or some semi-fictional composite version of them all.
How do view the album in the span of your discography? Now that it is finished, what would you say connects it most to your previous work, and what sets it most apart?
Matt: Well, so far it's the only one I can listen to and not have any regrets about how it was recorded, arranged, and mixed. I think as far as the arrangements of the songs, it's my favorite. I think it expands on some of the more orchestral arrangements I started trying out on The Island Moved in the Storm. I feel like it moves farther into some sort of soundtrack/ post-rock/ almost fantasy sort-of place that maybe I have been drifting toward for a while.
What was most challenging/ rewarding/ memorable from making the album?
Matt: I'd say collaborating with the different singers and musicians on the album was probably the most fun and most rewarding.
Working out harmony parts with the different singers on the album was everything I love about making music. I had some of the harmony parts worked out, but for the most part, I worked with each singer, because they are all songwriters in their own right and have amazing ideas that I wouldn't think of. Working out the harmonies on "Useless is Your Armor" with Angel Deradoorian was one of the most memorable days of recording. She came up with the craziest, most unexpected harmonies on that song that just transformed it.
Working with my guitar player, Alex Foote, was amazing too. I had a few written parts for him, but mostly he would improvise and maybe we'd talk about some of the parts we liked most and had him develop things from there. It's just ridiculously enjoyable to listen to him play and to work together to find just the right accompaniments for the songs.
Can you discuss the recording of The Jessamine Country Book of The Living? How much did "the studio" and/ or "recording" of the album influence and/ or inspire you for the album?
Matt: I've never been able to make a whole album in a studio. I have a lot of false starts recording and I sometimes work out arrangements or drum parts while recording in a way that would just be a ridiculous amount of hours to pay for in a studio. I record most things myself and go into a studio for things I don't feel I can record well myself, or that require space and microphones that I don't have. So, on this album, I recorded the string quartet with Nigel Pavao at Studio C in San Francisco, and recorded some piano and some vocalists there too, but recorded most everything else myself at home.
One thing that really helped the recording process this time, in a weird way, is that we recorded all the string arrangements first, which is not the way most people would go about it. We did it that way just because that's what worked out schedule wise. But it had the unexpected effect of setting a really high bar performance-wise and really helped set the mood and tone of the album.
Being based out of Brooklyn, how do you feel about the music community here? How is it beneficial, rewarding, challenging, etc?
Matt: I feel really thankful for a couple places like Zebulon and Union Pool that have been super supportive and welcoming to me. For the most part it's been great in that there are so many talented people to play with and so many great bands to go see and play shows with. At times I've felt like I'd like to feel more a part of a music community in New York, but I don't know that it's so much because of New York as it's just my own circumstances: coming and going a lot, touring or traveling, and trying to be friends with people who are in and out of town doing the same.
What are your non-musical influences, sources of inspiration?
Matt: Movies might be more of an influence on me than music. Night of the Hunter. The Piano Teacher. Terrence Malick movies, the voice over parts in The Thin Red Line really gave me some ideas that changed my lyric writing. And sometimes I get really good ideas from terrible movies like the Blade Trilogy or Underworld. I'm not kidding! Maybe it's because watching movies is one of the only times my life is quiet and I go kind of inward and get lost in thought.
I've been realizing that the things that actually influence my writing aren't necessarily things that I have really soaked in over time. I've listened to Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade about a million times, but I don't think it has had much influence on my music. But some little insightful moment in a nature documentary, or a movie, or a conversation with someone can make me really turn a corner to somewhere new in music.
What have you been listening to lately?
Matt: Liu Fang. She plays traditional Chinese music on the pipa and the zheng. So amazing. She embodies something I'm trying to aspire to, weirdly in the same way that Bill Monroe is such an inspiration to me: with both of them I'm in awe of their skill not for the crazy proficiency of it, but how they seem to have broken past any barrier to anything they might want to play in service of real emotion and beauty.
Jolie Holland's new record is so beautiful and maybe her best yet. The newest Parson Redheads album is great and has a song on it that I love so much called "Seven Years Ago". The newest Jesse Sykes is pretty incredible. I tend to find something I like and listen to it a million times in a row.
What are your plans for 2012?
Matt: I have a EP that's about ready to go. And just touring and nerding out on banjo and writing some new music.